Hunters and gatherers built the world’s oldest fortress

Amnaya I

One of the earliest fortified settlements in the world once lay on the headland: the Stone Age fortress Amnaya I. © Nikita Golovanov

Until now, Stone Age hunter-gatherer cultures were considered too primitive to achieve more complex buildings and settlements. But now archaeologists have discovered the world's oldest fortified settlement in Siberia - built by hunters and gatherers. As early as 8,000 years ago, they built a fortress with several buildings, protected by three ditches and a wooden palisade. This sheds new light on the origins of complex societies - and on the early cultures of the Siberian taiga.

According to popular belief, the Neolithic Revolution not only marked the beginning of agriculture and the sedentary, rural way of life. With the beginning of the Neolithic period, the early cultures developed leaps and bounds. Living together in permanent settlements promoted the development of complex societies and new social, cultural and technological structures: “Traditionally, archaeological narratives only associate the formation of socially and politically complex societies with the emergence of agriculture,” explain Henny Piezonka from the Free University of Berlin and her colleagues . Even more complex architectural structures such as larger settlements and fortresses were usually only discovered from the Neolithic period onwards.

Amnaya I and II
Structure of the fortified Stone Age settlement Amnaya I and its unfortified “outpost” Amnaya II. © Piezonka et al./ Antiquity, CC by 4.0

8000 year old fortress with moats and palisades

But now excavations in the Siberian taiga paint a completely different picture. Piezonka and her colleagues have discovered several settlements built by Stone Age hunters and gatherers between the Urals and the Yenisei River. “So far, eight different Stone Age settlements of this type are known,” report the researchers. One of these fortified settlements is Amnaya I, a Stone Age fortress that stood on a sandstone outcrop above a swampy river plain. In addition to the foundations of ten larger buildings, the excavations also revealed the remains of a wooden palisade and at least three moats. The construction of the houses suggests that these were dwellings that were used for a longer period of time. Relics of at least 45 clay vessels found in Amnaya I also testify to this.

The surprising thing, however, is that according to radiocarbon dating, the buildings of Amnaya I are around 8,000 years old. “This identifies it as the oldest known fort in the world,” says Piezonka. The first thing to be built in Amnaya I was the wooden palisade and one of the ditches, later the larger buildings in the interior, more ditches and a second palisade were added. The archaeologists discovered a second, unfortified settlement around 50 meters from Amnaya I. This complex, named Amnaya II, also includes around ten houses and dates from around the same time as the fortress in front of it. “The dating suggests that this complex was divided into a fortified 'citadel' and a 'castle courtyard' in front of it,” report the archaeologists.

Innovation boost among Taiga hunters and gatherers

Due to their age, these Siberian Stone Age settlements could only have been built by the hunter-gatherers who lived in the region at the time, as the team explains. “The Amnaya settlement complex marks the beginning of a unique, long-lasting phenomenon of hunter-gatherer defensive structures in northern Eurasia,” the archaeologists said. “This finding changes our understanding of early human societies.” Amnaya I and the other settlements demonstrate that hunter-gatherers in the Siberian taiga built complex defensive structures 8,000 years ago – long before such structures emerged in Europe or elsewhere.

It is still unclear why the hunters and gatherers of the Taiga built these settlements around 8,000 years ago. However, further finds suggest that there must have been a general boost in cultural and social development in this part of Siberia at that time. “This Stone Age innovation package included technological innovations, for example in pottery, as well as ritual practices, resource use and socio-political organization,” report Piezonka and her colleagues. However, it is not clear what triggered this development spurt.

A possible trigger could have been a climate change around 8,200 years ago, which changed the availability of resources in this area. Increased competition for fishing grounds, game and other food sources or the influx of people from other areas could then have changed the societies. “The fortified settlements overlooking the rivers may have served as strategic locations to control and exploit the rich fishing grounds,” Piezonka explains. “The competitive nature arising from resource storage and population growth is evident in these prehistoric structures, refuting previous assumptions that major conflicts did not occur in hunter-gatherer societies.”

Source: Free University of Berlin; Specialist article: Antiquity, doi: 10.15184/aqy.2023.164

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